Dramatic stories drive alcohol program for teens, parents

GREENVILLE — Nearly 600 high school students and their parents came to Greenville County’s Carolina First Center on April 1 for 90-minutes of “Parents, Teens and Alcohol.”
They were immediately rendered mute by a dramatic video on teen binge drinking and even more poignant testimony from the mother of a dead University of South Carolina student.
“We used to be a family of four,” said Teresa Cothran. “Now we are three people trying to live together, just trying to survive.”
Her son, Taylor Cothran, 20, was a Capstone Scholar at the university in Columbia when he fell five stories to his death in October. Mrs. Cothran cried as she detailed the pain her son’s alcohol-related death caused the family he left behind.  
Kimberly Parrish recounted the story of how her younger brother Griffin died. He drank so much at a party last May that his blood alcohol count was four times the legal limit.
A trauma care physician told the rapt crowd that drinking alcohol to excess produces thousands of these sad stories every year.
“Alcohol kills more teens than all other drugs combined,” Dr. Richard Roettger said. “Drinking leads to loss of inhibitions and reckless behavior.”  
It also leads to expensive lawsuits and time in prison, said Circuit Court Judge Edward W. Miller of the 13th Judicial Circuit. He said recent decisions by the S.C. Supreme Court have established “a new cause of action” that permits an adult who serves alcohol to an underage person to be held liable in civil court if that underage person causes harm.
“If that teenager is involved in a car accident and is injured, for instance, he or his parents can sue the social host who served him alcohol, even if the accident was his fault,” Judge Miller said.
The justice also said that mandatory minimum sentences in the case of Felony DUI, defined as causing injury or death while driving drunk, leave few options when imposing sentences.  
As an example, he described the case of a Furman University student who drove drunk and had an accident that killed his best friend. Although everyone pleaded for leniency at the trial, including the parents of the dead student, the driver was sent to prison. It was his first offense of any kind.
Maj. Robin Smith of the Greenville Police Department told the crowd that the greatest challenge faced by her officers in regard to underage drinking is the parties at private residences.  
Keynote speaker Jack Claypoole jumped on that theme, addressing the parents in the audience rather than the teenagers.
“Being a parent is more important than being your child’s social buddy,” said Claypoole, who is the administrator of Drug Free Communities, a federal program. “It’s got to stop right here, right now.”
Teresa Wersinger, 16, of St. Mary’s parish, said she liked the “Parents, Teens and Alcohol” program, adding that it reinforced information she had already heard from her father.
“It was pretty good. The stories were moving,” she said.
Her father, Thierry Wersinger, is a native of France who has been in Greenville as an executive at Michelin for the past twelve years. He noted that cultural differences and geography made the youth drinking problem in Europe less noticeable for years, although that situation is changing.
“Now Europe is staring to look a little like here, but the main thing different is the crazy distances in this country. Once an American child gets wheels, the level of risk increases tremendously,” Wersinger said. “This was a message that needed to be said.”
The message was hosted by four Greenville-area high schools, including St. Joseph’s Catholic School, and was sponsored by six local businesses, including the St. Francis Foundation.  
Chuck Saylors, president of the National PTA, served as the evening’s master of ceremonies.